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Federal aviation bill coming in for final approach

Congress is set to act just in time this week to re-authorize the Federal Aviation Administration, an annual exercise that this year includes a raft of popular and first-time enhancements to safety, technology and consumer protections.

The House of Representatives on Monday night approved the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act, which will be followed later in the week by a Senate vote. Lead House and Senate negotiators had announced a compromise late last week. Monday night’s vote was by voice that didn’t require a vote tally.

The bill is only a short-term measure, pushing the FAA’s authorization to the end of next September. But after the deadly airport attacks in Brussels and Istanbul, lawmakers say it is worth continuing popular safety enhancements and trying new ones. Proponents said they took notice of the security weaknesses that were revealed by the overseas attacks.

In statements issued shortly after Monday night’s vote, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy took pains to emphasize that they are working on a longer-term bill.

“With this legislation, we can protect our citizens by updating airport security and aviation safety requirements while working on a long-term solution,” Ryan said.

McCarthy said the bill “includes multiple airport security reforms and provides the certainty our aviation system needs in the coming year.”

The FAA’s current authorization expires on Friday, so the reauthorization is one of the few pieces of legislation that both the House and Senate must pass this week before they adjourn for nearly two months as the political conventions kick off. The bill would go to President Obama next week.

In the Senate, the charge is being led by John Thune of South Dakota, who chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Thune took the unusual step of filming a YouTube video at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to explain the bill, citing the recent attacks in Istanbul and Brussels and saying Americans are “rightfully” concerned.

In the video published on Monday, Thune said the bill address the “insider threat” to airline travel from airport employees by more carefully vetting them during the hiring process. There would also be an expansion of the Transportation Security Administration’s “precheck” screening and more canine security teams, both popular bipartisan demands of Democrats and Republicans.

 “The final, essential element to protecting Americans from terrorist attacks is addressing our vulnerabilities here at home,” Thune said in a floor speech last week. “This legislation provides one of the largest, most comprehensive airport security packages in years.”

He also praised a popular consumer protection measure in the bill: A requirement that airlines must refund baggage fees paid by passengers if the baggage is lost or delayed.

Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, likely won’t get one of his cherished priorities – partial privatization of the nation’s airspace, by shifting control away from the federal government.

That idea has defense hawks crying foul, since much of the nation’s airspace has long been commandeered by the Defense Department, such as at military bases. Shuster has said he supports the short-term extension for now but will continue to push his air space proposal next year.

The bill would also provide for a pilot program to explore the dangers of drones flown near airports – a first – as well as provisions triggering federal discussions on how drones could be used to aid firefighters. Drone manufacturers would also be required to include information on drone laws and safety rules in sales to customers. Lastly, the bill would establish $20,000 fines against any drone operators who “knowingly or recklessly” flies such a device within a certain distance of emergency public safety personnel.

The drone industry supports the various provisions. In a statement late last week, Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, called the FAA bill “another positive step forward for the commercial [unmanned aircraft system] industry – advancing UAS research, expanding commercial operations and enhancing the safety of the national airspace for all users – manned and unmanned.”

Senate proponents of the bill have jettisoned alternative energy provisions by Democrats that had held up the bill in April. The provisions, regarding wind and geothermal power, were left out of last year’s FAA bill, prompting Democrats to try to attach them to the popular airport security enhancements this year.

A procedural bill on the FAA already passed through the Senate unanimously in April, boding well for this week’s vote.